Sunday, September 8, 2013
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: March 19th, 1999
Format: Paperback, 448 Pages
On New Year's Eve 1974 Archie Jones sets out to kill himself but ends up being unsuccessful, yet like a butterfly leaving the cocoon, he leaves that gas filled car a new man. A new life and a new wife await him! His old army buddy Samad Iqbal has been saying to him for awhile that what he needs is a new young wife, like his own Alsana. That night Archie meets Clara Bowden and by Valentine's Day they are man and wife. Archie is escaping the life left in that car and Clara is escaping her mother, Hortense, whose religious beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness have stifled Clara's life. It isn't long before the middle aged men are fathers. Archie has a lovely daughter, Irie, and Samad has twins boys, Magid and Millat, who couldn't be more different.
It is 1984 and now Samad's life is about to change forever. He falls hard for his son's music teacher, Poppy Burt-Jones. The lust stirred in Samad has him questioning everything. But the attraction is mutual, and soon he has a new outlet for his lust. Yet his religious beliefs and the sin he is committing because, as he claims, the lure of the Western world has seduced him, leads him to do something that his wife will never forgive him for. He feels that if he could be degraded in this way, his sons are in even worse danger. He wants to send them back to Bangladesh, but only has the financial resources to send one of them. Magid and Millat are separated and Alsana can never forgive him until Magid is returned to her.
The 90s have come and Irie is grown up and in love with Millat. Millat has indeed fallen prey to the lure of the West as his father feared. He sleeps around, does drugs, gets into fights, and is still somehow the object of Irie's affection, which he doesn't return. One day at school Irie is confronting Millat near resident nerd Josh Chalfen when there is a drugs bust. The three of them get brought before the principal for Millat's marijuana. In the hope that Josh and his illustrious family, his mother Joyce is an author, his father Marcus is a genetic engineer, will be a good influence on Irie and Millat, they are to go to the Chalfens once a week and have Josh tutor them. Soon it's everyday. Joyce takes an extreme interest in Millat while Irie starts to work for Marcus as an assistant. Even Magid, back in Bangladesh, befriends Marcus and decides to return to England. But the life of Chalfenism is divisive, and soon Josh has joined an animals rights group, FATE, to protest his father's genetic engineering of FutureMouse, while Millat has joined a fundamentalist Islamic group, KEVIN, to turn his back on his old life and the fact that Marcus prefers Magid. On the eve of the new millennium, everyone gathers to herald the arrival of FutureMouse... most with differing ideas as to how the evening will go.
From the little blurb I have assembled above you might be drawn to the false conclusion that this book actually has a plot. It doesn't. Well... it kind of does at the very end where Zadie Smith apparently realized she needed one and just threw in a handful of new characters and a whole bunch of organizations with stupid acronyms and built to an unsatisfying conclusion with guns and Nazis and genetically engineered mice. That is right, she brought in Nazis. And I think that's the problem, she brought in whatever she wanted randomly and then just threw it aside when she got bored. Though she never seemed to get bored of slightly tweaking the reader with little asides in some random post modern moments of incomprehensibility. So the book actually feels like a bunch of interconnected short stories, some of which might have been good if they hadn't been thrown in with the morass of crap and depravity that makes up the majority of this book.
Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend and she asked me if I had read Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I replied that I had, mainly because it was a loosely, if failed, reimagining of Howards End, and was mentioned on The Vicar of Dibley. She was wondering if I was put off by the very detailed descriptions of one of the character's nipples. I honestly said that I had no recollection of this, most likely I had blocked it from my memory. I can honestly say though, after reading White Teeth, I will never forget Zadie Smith's obsession with nipples ever again. In fact, this book can be summed up as very boring with a veneer of eww. If I wasn't bored senseless I was quite literally wanting to throw up. Thirty pages of a 57 year old man masturbating (another friend claims it might have been more, perhaps I'm preemptively blocking this out). Domestic abuse, where the children are placing bets on their parents. Teenagers marrying men in their 40s (proving Smith has daddy issues). A father of Irie's classmate calling her a big black goddess and ruminating about her breasts, when she's only what, fourteen! The aforementioned nipples, except for multiple characters, not just one. I wanted to wash my brain after reading this book.
Now, you're thinking that I missed the point, that the book wasn't about these accumulated repugnant and repulsive moments. I totally get that the book is about heritage and ancestry and genetics and what limitations we are burdened with, nature, nurture, fate. The second generation versus the first generation. You would have to be blind to miss this, especially once we get to FutureMouse. But the truth is, I can't, I couldn't, give a tinker's damn. It doesn't matter if you set out to write the most amazing, most profound story, if your characters are not only unlikeable, but reprehensible, then there is no way I will care. With all this ick as I will pejoratively call everything in this book, there wasn't a redeemable character or any reason to even finish reading this book except for the fact that I am incapable of leaving a book unfinished. So I finished. I read ever last work she wrote and I hated it. Mine is an educated hate, you can't say fairer then that!